Beth Gordon knew her mother wasn't like other mothers. Other mothers didn't tear up when you needed a haircut or beg you to keep wearing an old dress well after the hems and seams had been exhausted. Beth could understand if they were poor, but they were not. She had dresses and shoes as she needed and a cozy bedroom full of her books and toys. Dad was a famous architect at the most prestigious firm in Vancouver and while the family was not 'uppercrust' they lacked for nothing in Gordon household.
"Your mother is sentimental," Dad was wont to say. Beth thought that 'sentimental' wasn't quite the word, but she didn't know any other fit to replace. Mother was not merely sentimental about Beth's hair or clothes, no Mother was sentimental about everything. The horribly old-fashioned hooked rugs were never to be disparaged. Even worse the Gordons didn't have a living room, they had a parlor of all things!
"Nancy Keene's family's got an electric toaster," Beth announced one breakfast. "She says her mother says no woman should be without modern conveniences."
"What do you say, Pat?" Dad grinned over his teacup. "Ready to let the modern world in? Goodness knows the house is wired for as many gadgets one could wish for."
"We prefer things the old-fashioned way."
No, Beth thought crossly. You prefer them that way, Mother. Beth didn't really care about electrical toasters. It was the principle of the thing. She didn't quite understand how Mother could be so lovely in so many ways, but so despairing of change that it rather colored things in the house.
Before the age of eleven Beth had only been to the Island once and it was when she was a toddling creature of hardly a year old. Her parents had talked of making the trip back East again, but it never worked out. At long last she was to return to her parent's native land, the mysterious Prince Edward Island, home of the original Silver Bush.
"The site of Silver Bush, " Mother corrected wistfully. "It burnt down before you were born. Sid and May built a new house on the foundation, but it's not Silver Bush."
Beth could tell Dad was worried. He kept gently reminding Mother that such-and-such meadow may have been plowed over or that trees might've been cut down.
"I know, Hilary," for that was Dad's name, Mother sighed and gave a queer laugh. "Especially without me to plead on behalf of the darling trees and quaint meadows. Perhaps it's better this way. Since I wasn't there to see the little changes happening it might be easier to look at the 'big picture' of the old homestead."
The words were hopeful even if the tone wasn't.
Both sky and sea were a dismal ashy color when they arrived on the Island, but Beth hardly noticed. Silver Bush II or was it New Silver Bush, was homey and bursting with life. Mother might have been disappointed in the new house and the changes on the farm, but Beth loved it as is. There were modern concessions here, living rooms instead of parlors and a color-scheme kitchen more open than cozy.
Aunt Winnie and Grandmother Gardiner were cut from the same dainty cloth, wispy and loving to the point that Beth couldn't help but wince in agreement when the Binnie side talked about the Bayshore Selbys and their weak constitutions. It made her glad Mother was all Gardiner, hardy and stubborn.
Aunt May wasn't too bad as far as aunts went. While she and mother quipped cutting little remarks at each other, Aunt May was a wonder with hair. She managed pin curls like a fairy godmother gave her the gift and Beth was transformed into a ringleted delight in time for church their first Sunday on the Island.
"Why don't Mother and Aunt May get along?" she asked Dad when they were out roaming.
"They're two different breeds of cat," said Dad.
Beth could see that very well. Mother was a dark house cat who wanted to curl up by the hearth while Aunt May was a fluffy Persian who wanted to be adored wherever she went.
"But even if they weren't I don't think your Mother would love anyone who married Sid. There was only one girl on Earth she thought good enough for Sid and if she had her way the three of them would have lived forever together at Silver Bush."
Beth knew the story of Bets. After all she was named for her. She'd never heard it like this, from Dad who sounded almost jealous of poor saintly departed Bets. "Was Uncle Sid really going to marry Bets?"
"Some people thought so, but he never asked as far as I know," Dad said after a long pause. "He liked her well enough depending on the year. I think Bets was more keen on becoming a sister to Pat than a wife to Sid."
So if Bets was still alive Beth wouldn't be here? Beth couldn't exist because Mother would've never left Silver Bush and married Dad. There might've been a little Patricia instead, the impossibly beautiful daughter of Uncle Sid and Bets, named after Mother (Mother always said they would name their children after each other). While Beth couldn't truly mourn Bets there was a queer grief in her for the little Patricia or Patrick Gardiner Who-Never-Was. Ideally in some world there was room for them both : Tricia Gardiner and Beth Gordon devoted cousins and best friends.
Not that Beth was lacking in cousins either in Vancouver or the Island.
"I know a secret about your parents," Juliet Gardiner smirked over her half-finished apple turnover.
Juliet was Uncle Sid's and Aunt May's eldest daughter, who had the audacity to have been born in July instead of the planned June hence her name. She had little sisters named Augusta and April with little brother Marcus to continue the theme. Beth got along with all of them tolerably well, but due to age got thrown together with Juliet more often than either of them enjoyed.
"How nice for you," Beth finally answered. A secret like the one Juliet was implying couldn't be pleasant and she had no wish to be be angry with her cousin the rest of the visit.
"You know the Silver Bush fire?"
Beth gave her a withering stare, "I'm a Gardiner, too."
"Well everyone knows that one of them set the fire. That's why your parents moved out west and stayed away."
The absurdity of it had Beth laughing. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard, Juliet. Mother loved the old house like it was a person and Dad makes houses for his job."
"It's common knowledge your ma was never going to leave Silver Bush. You know she used to say she wasn't going to Heaven that she was going to ask God to stay at Silver Bush instead."
Beth had heard that family joke ages ago. Mother had been all of seven when she made that declaration.
"Lots of folks say that your dad set the fire. That he was getting desperate to marry your ma after years and years of waiting. All the family was at church and it's awful convenient that your dad came to propose to your ma again right after Silver Bush burnt down."
It was true that Mother and Dad were wed soon after the fire. But Beth couldn't imagine Dad, who loved houses especially homey houses, destroying their family homestead.
" 'Course I don't believe that," Juliet continued, voice as sweet as poison. "Uncle Hilary is too nice. He'd have waited for your ma forever."
Thank goodness for that!
"Exactly," Beth agreed. Her own apple turnover was finished, though a sinking feeling had taken up residence in her stomach.
"So of course it was probably your ma."
Beth refused to argue such nonsense and coolly assessed Juliet with an expression that Juliet would later report to her own ma "gave her the creeps."
"Dad and Ma were making improvements," Juliet let the word dangle, a taunt. "To the old place and Aunt Pat couldn't stand it. 'Course she's always been jealous of Ma since they were schoolgirls," she threw Beth a coy glance as if daring her to challenge the assertion. "She would've rather seen it charred down to the ground than changed."
"Mother was at church with the family when the fire started," Beth found her tongue at last.
"You can always leave a stove going accidentally-on-purpose," shrugged Juliet. "Or leave something near an ungrated hearth. It'd take a while, but it'd happen. Naturally no one thinks Aunt Pat was in her right mind. Dad said she was in a such a daze since Aunt Rachel got married and that old servant-"
"Judy died. Poor Auntie Pat," a crocodile tear, "Was probably half-mad with grief or half-asleep. I'm sure she didn't plan it, not like them cold-blooded murders."
The accusation cut deep and wide. Beth could picture it, her imagination was unfortunately quite vivid, even if she couldn't believe it.
"That's why no one talks about it. They think she was out of her wits for a bit, but got better after the fire. 'Course if anyone was in the house when it burned your ma'd be in an asylum."
"Are you quite finished?" Beth arched an eyebrow and borrowed a phrase from one of Dad's friends.
"I just thought you oughta know," huffed Juliet. "A person should know their family history."
"Silver Bush had a lot of insurance on it. Uncle Sid and Aunt May got a lot of money to rebuild the house they way they wanted. People sometimes burn their buildings for the insurance money. Dad hears these things at his office all the time."
"My parents wouldn't stoop so low!" cried Juliet.
"My parents, who are also your auntie and uncle, wouldn't either, cousin," said Beth placidly, shoving her anger and sadness as far down as they could go. "The Gardiners, Binnies, and Gordons are such respectable people and tragedies happen all the time."
With the afternoon spoiled, Juliet went inside and for a full fortnight was conveniently doing Bible study or afflicted with a headache when it was suggested she play with her Gordon cousin.
The seeds of doubt planted in Beth's mind began to blossom all too swiftly. Suppose one of her parents did set the fire? It rather cast a pall over her Island summer. Worst of all she couldn't even write to cousin Josie about it lest Aunt Rae see the letter.
Beth fretted and chewed the matter over. When she thought about it with cool Gordon logic Beth didn't care who started the fire or why because without the fire there would be no Beth. But her Gardiner side bristled at the insinuations and puffed up with anger at the notion that people (the Binnie side to be sure, but what of the other Gardiners and Selbys?) thought of her parents as mentally unstable arsonists.
One evening while out rambling with Dad near the Long Lonely House, Bets' house you know, Beth crumpled against a willow tree and cried "I don't care if you or Mother set the Silver Bush fire, but please just tell me so I can stop thinking about it! I can't stand it anymore!"
"Set the Silver Bush fire? Where did you get such a notion?" Dad sat on the ground next to her. "The Silver Bush fire was an accident."
But everyone says you or Mother set it," Beth blinked back tears. "Mother to keep Uncle Sid and Aunt May from improving it. Or you to get Mother away from Silver Bush. Dad it's all right. I don't care about the old house, I just want to know the truth."
"Everyone, eh? I don't suppose your Binnie cousins have anything to do with this?"
"Juliet told me, but Dad no one ever talks about the fire around you or mother. Not even Grandpa Alec or Aunt Winnie!"
"Your Aunt May left the oil stove burning that Sunday morning and she never denied it at the time. Juliet is just repeating gossip to keep from hearing about her own mother setting it by accident, that's all."
A tendril of hope at last! Beth wanted to believe it so badly that it couldn't possibly be true.
"Though I'm touched by your loyalty," Dad ruffled her hair. "Willing to keep the secret of arsonist parents is pretty heavy stuff. No, your mother would've borne the improvements to Silver Bush albeit with a great deal of grumbling. As for me, Silver Bush was the first place that felt like home. I couldn't put it to the torch even if it was my greatest rival for your mother."
Beth choked on a hysterical laugh, "I'm so glad. I didn't want to believe it, but Juliet was so convincing and we'd stayed away for so long..."
"The loss of Silver Bush hurt Pat very deeply. She didn't want to return to the Island for a while, but after a few years she changed her mind and it was only bad timing that kept us away."
Of course! How could she have been so silly to believe malicious gossip. She was deliriously happy, enough so that she couldn't even hold a grudge against silly Juliet. After all Juliet couldn't help being half Binnie anymore than Beth could help being half Gordon and clannishness went pretty deep. It was a lot easier to blame someone else's mother than your own.
She hadn't meant to tell Mother about her misunderstanding, but it all came tumbling out when they returned home to the Hill O'Mist.
"Binnies!" Mother shook her head. "Or I suppose Binnie-Gardiners. Juliet is Sid's child, too. I'm sorry you had such a hard time of it. I wondered about your falling out with Juliet, but I didn't want to pry."
"I feel awfully foolish," Beth admitted. "I'm sorry I believed anything so wicked of you or Dad. Can you ever forgive me?"
"There's nothing to forgive," Mother answered without hesitation. "Sometimes I was glad the fire happened otherwise I never would have left. No Beth or Hill O'Mist, how can I regret you? But I used to feel as though I set Silver Bush aflame when I counted my blessings."
"Perhaps, Silver Bush had a soul," Beth ventured. "Maybe it wanted you to be happy and set you free."
"Perhaps," said Pat. "It took care of us for so long I cannot begrudge it its rest."
Maybe it wasn't so bad having a sentimental mother after all Beth decided. Besides Dad was pretty sentimental too as evidenced by the little china dog on the mantle and Judy's kittens hanging in the parlor.
"I suppose we're a pretty sentimental lot after all," she told the china dog. "But I wouldn't trade being a Gardiner-Gordon for anything in the world."
He seemed to agree.